Professor in the School of Foreign Languages, Peking University
China’s Fluctuating English Education Policies,Underlying Ambivalences, and Ways-Out
In the past three decades, China’s foreign language education policies have experienced a fluctuation between excessive euphoria on the one hand, and deep fear on the other. Reflected in and constructed by language policy related discourses at various levels, this change can be roughly categorized into the following stages: 1) the craze for English education from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s; 2) the anxiety regarding “too much time and too little efficiency” from the mid-1990s to the first decade of the new millennium; 3) the fear of English education will hamper Chinese language proficiency and Chinese cultural identity, as in the recent debate over an eventually aborted English education policy reform from 2013 to 2014. This policy and attitudinal fluctuation of 30 years can be contextualized and interpreted in a history of 150 years. An ambivalent psychological complex towards self and the west is revealed, situated in China’s semi-colonial and semi-feudal history beginning with the Opium Wars in 1840. This ambivalence involves the desire for the English language through which new technologies can be learned to strengthen the nation, and the fear that this foreign language will threat to undermine the Chinese identity. The ambivalence is also related to conflicting views of language, i.e., language as “yong” (utility) vs. “ti” (essence). The status of English in China since the mid-19th century has kept fluctuating, depending on how its yong and sometimes ti were perceived in particular historical periods. Such ambivalences and related fluctuations have become a “habitus” (Bourdieu, 1991) in the field of foreign language education in China, i.e., durable “structuring structures” of the mind that generates policy making practices and discourses which are not necessarily rational. In the context of increased globalization, this self-perpetuating habitus has become a challenge as it constrains possibilities for creative development. To find ways out, changes need to be made to this habitus. It is proposed that while recognizing a historical reality with national shame in the past, it should be brought to awareness that the English language is often a screen onto which are projected ambivalent feelings. If we allow us to contain such feelings but do not let them interfere with our perception of the present, then English is not necessarily an angel or demon to the “Chinese dream,” and not necessarily in opposition with the Chinese language and culture. A new L2 identity of the dialogical communicator (Gao, 2014) may help to work through the ambivalences, and achieve productive, mutually enhancing national and international identities. Pedagogical suggestions are provided in this direction.